And so it begins. The rotation that fantasy managers feared would blight the forthcoming month arrived earlier than expected in the last gameweek of November, with several big names conspicuous by their absence from the midweek teamsheets – especially on Wednesday evening.
We have of course become rather accustomed to rotation this season, Pep Guardiola’s irritating tinkering playing havoc with our midfields and attacks in particular. The irony this week was that Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Agüero – perhaps the most bothersome ‘will they/won’t they play’ dilemma of the FPL season – started together in the Premier League for the first time since September.
The warning signs were there on Tuesday when the likes of Ben Davies, Kieran Trippier, Rob Elliott and Julian Speroni were either rested or dropped from their respective clubs’ starting XIs, but the real hammer blows came the following night (not just at Goodison) when the teamsheets trickled through an hour before kick-off.
Missing from the line-ups were, amongst others, Mohamed Salah, Philippe Coutinho, David Silva, Leroy Sané, Eden Hazard and, most shocking of all, the hitherto undroppable César Azpilicueta.
Salah’s brace after his arrival as a second-half substitute in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Stoke was the only bright spot in a gameweek littered with binary scores for the other big hitters; the Egyptian becoming the first player to pass the 100-point mark in FPL this season.
The horror stories flooded in on social media, some exacerbated by the questionable deployment of chips.
With a ludicrous eight gameweeks between now and New Year's Day – plus Champions League and Carabao Cup games to squeeze in to the schedule – what do the figures tell us about the likelihood of further line-up changes for this hectic period?
Manchester City’s figure of 1.8 changes per game belies Guardiola’s reputation as a Ranieri-lite tinkerman, FPL managers perhaps blinded by those alterations coming in key attacking positions. Indeed, up until Wednesday night, City’s midfield three of Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva had been ever-presents in the league this season.
The stand-out statistic belongs to Liverpool – Jürgen Klopp making on average more than twice as many changes (3.8 per game) to his starting XI than Guardiola does. That figure – along with Arsenal’s 2.3, Chelsea’s 2.6 and Everton’s 2.8 – can at least be partly attributed to the demands of midweek European football.
A poor start to the season meanwhile perhaps accounts for West Ham and AFC Bournemouth’s high turnover of starting players (2.5 and 2.4 changes per game respectively), though it’s interesting to note that Leicester City – who themselves flattered to deceive until the last month – have a relatively settled line-up (only 1.3 line-up alterations per match). Sean Dyche has made fewer changes to his team than any other manager since the start of the season, less than one per game (0.9). Burnley and Leicester assets therefore look a relatively safe bet for FPL managers looking for guaranteed starters over the festive period, with Chris Hughton’s Brighton (1.6) averse to making wholesale changes too.
Positionally, the gut feeling is that the higher up the pitch we go, the more likely it is that our players may face bench duty for a game or two over Christmas. The stats bear this assertion out too:
For security of starts, goalkeepers are the FPL manager’s friend. 13 ‘keepers have started every Premier League match this season, 11 of whom have played every single minute - only in-game injuries to Man City’s Ederson and Watford’s Heurelho Gomes preventing them from doing likewise.
In defence, 22 players have started in all 14 games of the 2017/18 season to date. Nacho Monreal and Héctor Bellerín are ever-presents for Arsenal this campaign – food for thought for FPL managers given their favourable run of fixtures and improving form. Three of Leicester’s back four (Harry Maguire, Wes Morgan and Danny Simpson) have been on the teamsheet in every one of their fixtures so far, while highly owned full-backs such as Antonio Valencia, Charlie Daniels and Marcos Alonso have also yet to warm the bench.
Further forward, 16 midfielders have 14 consecutive starts under their belts – though it’s the calibre of midfielder that is striking. Defensive-minded and deep-lying players hog the headlines here, names such as Jack Cork, Dale Stephens, Davy Pröpper, Wilfred Ndidi, Darren Fletcher, Fernandinho, Granit Xhaka, Nemanja Matic and Idrissa Gueye unlikely to prompt a flood of transfers despite their healthy appearance record.
Discounting Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne is the one City midfielder who has yet to be rested in the Premier League this season, a sign of the esteem Guardiola holds him in and how pivotal he is to City’s play – though surely the Belgian must be set for a breather at some point in December. A forthcoming home game against a wretched West Ham side offers the prospect of further riches in the meantime – De Bruyne’s record at the Etihad this season is impressive to say the least.
Robbie Brady’s 13-point haul at Bournemouth on Wednesday will have brought the £5.5m-rated midfielder to the attention of FPL managers – the Irishman too has an unblemished starting record for Burnley this season and the Clarets’ next four league games (lei, WAT, STO, bri) offer the very real prospect of further returns.
One of the surprise packages of this season has been Abdoulaye Doucouré, who notched his fifth league goal of the campaign in Watford’s defeat at home to Manchester United on Tuesday night. Along with teammate Tom Cleverley, Doucoure has featured in all 14 of Watford’s games this season.
Misfiring he may currently be at club level, Christian Eriksen is also an ever-present for Spurs this season. Discount the Danish playmaker at your peril – let’s not forget this was a man who racked up 20 assists in 2016/17. Nevertheless, Eriksen’s security of starts is his one saving grace at the moment.
Up top, only three forwards have yet to face the axe – Romelu Lukaku, Jamie Vardy and Jordan Ayew. Ayew’s teammate Tammy Abraham is more highly owned and indeed more productive in front of goal for Swansea this season, but priced at just £5.1m Ayew is an excellent candidate for managers looking to go 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 – the Ghanaian’s meagre returns means he is perfect for ‘bench fodder’ duty but nevertheless always ready to offer up a reliable two points should he be called on as an automatic substitution (the striking equivalent of Tom Carroll, perhaps).
Lukaku has been a steady source of points this season – even when not scoring, he has at least been weighing in with the odd assist. The return of Zlatan Ibrahimović though casts doubt on his game time over Christmas, as does his worrying form in front of goal (only one strike in the last seven).
Vardy had that exact same one-in-seven record before Tuesday’s sublime lob against Spurs, but with four appetising fixtures approaching for a resurgent Leicester (BUR, new, sou, CRY) and perhaps not the same threat to his starting spot as Lukaku faces, Vardy offers that nailed-on security and the genuine chance of big returns in a congested month of matches. He’s considerably cheaper than other big-name forwards at £8.5m, too, which allows for cash to be splurged elsewhere.
Another consideration for rotation is fixture difficulty. In normal circumstances, a low FDR average would be an appealing prospect – but as gameweek 14’s team selections suggest, it is these ‘easy’ fixtures in which rotation is perhaps most likely, particularly in a month as busy as December.
Chelsea’s incredible run of fixtures up until gameweek 28 in late February – only one game with an FDR above 3 in this period – has sparked a rush in FPL for players such as Hazard, Alonso, Azpilicueta and Álvaro Morata, but Wednesday’s line-up serves as a cautionary tale for the following four weeks or so.
Of course all of this is moot – a ghost team is going to win the whole damn thing this season.